On the eve of the next big nuclear-related event of the Obama presidency, the United States’ non-proliferation engine is shuddering dangerously, indeed running the risk of choking itself in a web of contradictions. 

At a press conference to preview of the upcoming Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference to be held in New York between May 3 and May 28, the tensions in the agenda, as well as a sense of gloom about what could realistically be achieved, were evident in equal measure. 

As far as contradictions go, South Asia was clearly the elephant in the room. With ever more signs of weakness in the non-proliferation regime emerging, the administration has been fighting off the back foot to defend itself against allegations that it has contributed to this attrition. For example recent reports suggested that China was planning to sell nuclear reactors to Pakistan, potentially disregarding views of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. 

To a question on whether the such potential risks of proliferation had grown in the region due to the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal Ellen Tauscher, Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, said, “We do not believe we weakened the NPT in our peaceful civilian nuclear deal with India,” adding that it was a deal that came with safeguards and a number of other transparency mechanisms that “we think… add to the security and the non-proliferation concerns that we had prior to that.” 

Yet she was quick to disclaim any responsibility that the U.S. might bear for events resulting as a consequence of the deal: “So I think that it is not our [fault] if something else happens, but certainly what we are for and what we make very clear we are for is that we want a strong NPT, we want a strong IAEA that is well funded, that has the authorities it needs to be the right watchdog for the time that we live in.” 

If the China-Pakistan nuclear deal exposed some of cracks in the U.S.’s non-proliferation agenda in South Asia then Pakistan’s resistance to the Fissile Materials Cut Off Treaty (FMCT) made the denial of these cracks impossible. 

In a delicately balanced statement Ms. Tauscher said, “Everyone shares the disappointment that the United States shares that there is a country that is blocking the program of work that was a very hard fought agreement among the six Chairmen, somewhat historic, last year in the conference on disarmament in Geneva to move forward on a program of work, to begin negotiations on a FMCT.” 

She added, “We join a lot of our friends and allies trying to persuade that country to step away and let the program of work go forward because it would be a long negotiation.” 

And it is not only the FMCT but the NPT itself that the U.S. will attempt to tie India and Pakistan to. To a direct question on whether  the U.S. would urge the nuclear-armed rivals to sign up Susan Burk, the President’s Special Representative for Nuclear Non-proliferation, said, “The U.S. has had a longstanding policy of supporting the universal adherence to the NPT, and I am quite confident that that issue will be raised during the review conference and there will be a desire to recommit the parties’ support for that.”  

However, South Asia is hardly likely to give the U.S. much joy in this venture. The unspoken quid pro quo element of treaty ratifications, especially such high-profile treaties, would require the U.S. to resolve a massive contradiction at the very heart of global nuclear politics – that to bring get India and Pakistan to accede to the NPT the U.S. itself may have to accede to comprehensive test bans and disarmament on a much larger scale, proportional to the size of its nuclear arsenal. 

Yet it is not South Asia, but Iran that is likely to continue to discomfit the U.S. during the meet. The State Department has consistently emphasised President Obama’s so called dual-track approach of holding out the possibility of negotiations while simultaneously seeking to build consensus around a sanctions regime against Iran in the event of it not cooperating. 

But quite apart from the well-known resistance to sanctions by Russia and China and others like Brazil, the U.S. will also have to build a case around why it is pressing Iran so hard while Israel, which has nuclear weapons, may be considered equally responsible for jeopardising peace in the region. 

In particular with regard to the 1995 Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction-free zone resolution, Ms. Tauscher’s defence was: “Israel is a not a party to the NPT, will not be at the NPT.” However she added that the 1995 resolution “would also include, obviously, a nuclear-free zone... But we are concerned that the conditions are not right. And unless all members of the region participate, which would be unlikely unless there is a comprehensive peace plan that is being accepted and worked on, then you could not have the conference that would achieve what we are all looking to achieve.” 

While the U.S. may be hard pressed to admit that it could be in a cul-de-sac, it came close to doing so on Friday when Ms. Tauscher said that the NPT Review Conference was not about a final communiqué or a product that comes out and the “real work of strengthening the regime “is not going to happen next week [but…] in the months and the years to come.”

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